Forgiving Fehr: Why I Can't Blame Owners and Players Equally

Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

In which we're not so hockey hungry to ignore that the NHL "have's" class is about to have its way, in a big way, once again.

Last week's NHL owner-player bargaining sessions began with unbridled optimism and ended with rubber suits and Geiger Counters.

Significant progress said to be started by a bipartisan Penguins contingent was undone after Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr entered into the process midway through the week. The ensuing meltdown was hilarious, if nothing else. The sides were reportedly close on a number of issues but still found a way to crawl back to their corners, bitter and pointing the finger at the guy across the mat.

Though the league cancelled games through December on Monday (which will amount to 526 contests forfeited), talks are said to resume this Wednesday.

For the dashed hopes and ultimate letdown last Thursday provided, the meetings' most telling contribution came from NHLPA attendee Ron Hainsey, who spoke of the precise moment when the seemingly-positive talks lit the match on the public dumpster fire.

"Once we made clear that ... we had to get our union leadership, that we've hired for this, in the room," said Hainsey, "there was just a very big change."

"It was very alarming, and I was told that if we were going to [bring Don Fehr in to help reach an agreement], it was possibly a dealbreaker."

Are owners so entitled to think they can lay another take-it-or-leave-it offer at players' feet and expect them to sign it without approval from the counsel (Fehr) they hired to avoid being gulled into another owner-friendly CBA?

Apparently, yes:

"Hainsey admitted he didn't like when the NHL resisted Fehr's return, telling Gord Stellick and Ron MacLean on Hockey Night in Canada Radio, 'They attempted to argue it. This was not a debatable decision. We do not tell them who to bring in and obviously they can't tell us. It was told to me directly [Fehr coming back in] could be a deal-breaker.'"

No wonder talks broke off.

Following the end of the meetings, blame spread in all directions. It might be impossible to vilify Gary Bettman to any further extent, but Fehr, who was characterized as slow-moving and constantly shifting the needs of the players' union, received as much blame and derision as Bettman.

This is insane.

As easy as it is to boil the process down to a pissing contest between the super-rich and the mega-rich in which the fans get caught in the downpour, the disconnect is only a matter of scale. When the smoke finally clears on this thing, owners will have gotten concessions on contract terms, player pay as a percentage of league revenue and friendlier definitions of capital expenditures and hockey-related revenues.

In short, players are going to be taken for a ride.

Again.

Forget for a moment that the average annual NHL player salary was $2.4 million before the start of last season. That's a lot compared to most of the people buying that player's jersey, but NHL owners, on average, are worth more than your state's GDP (or something).

The disconnect between NHL management and labor is as large as in any other industry. Millionaires vs. billionaires is only a matter of scale.

That matter of scale doesn't change the fact that players will see their share of revenues cut by seven percent under a 50-50 revenue split. That cut comes seven years after player salaries were slashed by 24 percent across the board and a hard salary cap, which intends to limit individual contract values, was put in place. It doesn't change the fact that owners, whose hockey teams are almost always a supplementary source of income if not an outright hobby, will get to favorably redefine hockey-related revenue and capital expenses. It doesn't change the fact that each of the last three NHL work stoppages was an owner-mandated lockout (the last players' strike occurred in 1992).

Above all, the NHLPA's stubbornness on some issues doesn't change the fact that players are being told to take a second significant paycut and reduction in benefits in seven years despite record league revenues, year after year after year.

It has been wondered what fans will ultimately get out of this protracted standoff. Why not wonder the same of the players?

Since 2005, owners have watched their teams climb to record-high values and yet continue to tell their workforces, whose salaries have somehow become an untenable cost, to take a paycut or be fired outright.

Gee, now where have Americans heard this refrain before?

Players got hosed when Bob Goodenow rolled over to ownership in 2005 and they knew it. It was why they called in Fehr in the first place, and his ability to maximize the process for his clients is why the league e-braked the meetings upon his return to talks last Wednesday.

At this point, the battle has little to do with hockey. It might not even have much to do with the math of the CBA. The numbers, by and large, are agreed upon. The sides are just too close not to make a deal, even if they have to begrudge a perceived negotiating "win" to the guy across the table.

For the players, the battle has been about ensuring that the NHL didn't become comfortable in raking them over the coals with each new CBA. Fehr has obviously flustered Bettman. Perhaps a new dynamic has already been set.

If nothing else, maybe Fehr's battle will help to provide a small win for a labor force that will still see ownership have its cake and eat theirs, too.

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